Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Printing Press Killed the Church?

Back in 1980, an event occurred that changed how a generation would experience and think about music.  1980 saw the birth of MTV, a channel where rock n' roll, heard only on the radio or on cassette, vinyl or 8 track (the CD was out, but nowhere near the prominence of later years), would now have a distinct visual characteristic to it.  The inaugural video was the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star."  The channel was an instant smash and a younger generation of music lovers would be able to not only listen to their favorite music but see it as well.  Radio's days, it looked like, were numbered.

Of course, such proved not to be the case.  MTV has moved away from its music roots to become a channel that hosts news, sitcoms, game shows, reality shows, award shows for movies, etc.  It has ceased to be a purely musical-visual entity.  I think it is rare to actually find an actual video on MTV any more unless you're an insomniac.  Radio survived, but only barely.  Radio became more and more a recycling center for the same current hits over and over.  Now, specialty radio stations have come into the mix like what you have on Sirius XM.

The title for this post came from a sermon I was listening to online by Fr. Patrick Reardon of All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, Ill.  I cannot remember the context of his sermon in general, but that one little phrase stuck with me.  As I listened to him defend it, I had to conclude that he was mostly right.  I don't think the printing press killed the Church, but it has inflicted some serious wounds which will not be easy to recover from.

Of course, the printing press has been hailed as the most important invention of the last 1000 years. Johann Gutenberg was named as the person of the millennium for his invention of moveable type.  Indeed, if it were not for the printing press, the dissemination of the Reformation's ideas could not have taken place throughout Europe and the pamphlets which stirred the colonies to rebel against Britain would not have had such an impact among other things.  But the printing press has caused a specific harm to the church and to her members, especially when it comes to prayer.

The Liturgy of the Church has always been sung aloud.  Her Scriptures and prayers were read and proclaimed for everyone to hear, regardless of literacy.  Even in private study, the Scriptures were read aloud (St. Augustine, in his Confessions marvels that St. Ambrose reads "with his eyes", i.e. silently).  Words and more specifically, the Word, is meant to be proclaimed, not read silently.  We would never, I hope, have a liturgy where everyone just read silently their own parts. It wouldn't be a liturgy, just a big group reading session.

But as more and more of the liturgy becomes internalized or silent, the less likely people are to remember.  I am amazed, simply amazed, week in and week out how many people in my parish still require the books to navigate the service.  Even cradle Orthodox have difficulties with this. I am even more shocked and appalled that even the creed requires the aid of a printed version.  When special services are held during the week for a great feast, the people come to me (because I'm chanting the service) and ask "where's the book?"  I often want to ask (I never do) why they cannot listen.

I'm sure if I did ask why listening would not be enough they would respond that they want to participate.  Participation is something I have touched on several times before and I won't do it here again suffice it to say that participation is not guaranteed by having texts right in front of you.  I would say that it makes you less likely to participate as you are not praying, you are reading. The two are not one and the same.

For today's world, reading is the first step towards making the prayers of the church one's own so that they cease to be words on a page, but expressions of the heart.  As long as Orthodox churches continue to put out service books which are readily available, the less the prayers will be internalized.

Another problem with equipping the congregation with text is that one thing that has not happened in the English language is a standardization of the prayer offices and Liturgy.  That's a bad idea for an number of reasons, but the primary reason I'm opposed to it is because someone at the end of the Liturgy or Vespers or Orthros can come up and ask why I chanted something a little different than the way it's in the book.  My response is often that melodies are prescribed for certain hymns and I prefer to use the hymn translations that are metered to those melodies such as the HTM translations.  So, rather than praying and listening to what is proclaimed, having a text in front of someone can often cause them to be the police for conformity, making an idol out of text.

In a perfect world, there would be no service books.  I also hate when I hear the entire congregation at the same time turning the page of a book. It's loud and distracting.  We need to get away from text because it's making Orthodox Christians excellent readers, but not good prayers.  The latter should be the aim.

Texts, of course, are necessary for the priests, deacons, servers and the chanters.  But that does not mean they should be universally available.


  1. Thanks for this, some interesting thoughts. Service books are great but should be something laity are encouraged to take home with them so they can look up unfamiliar words, read up on certain concepts or biblical references, and learn the structure of the service. In the services themselves they often become a hindrance to participation and memorisation, as you say.

    1. The lack of knowing how the liturgy proceeds is one of the most damning thing about modern Orthodox Christians. Even in the choir at my church, some of whose members have been singing Divine Liturgies for 50+ years couldn't put a service together or know when one thing came after the other.

      There's a logic behind the church's liturgy and why it proceeds the way it does. I think people's exposure to evangelicalism and "doing what you feel" has infiltrated way too many Orthodox Christians' minds.

  2. I think to a large extent people just have a very infantile approach to religion. It surprises me how often grown adults of otherwise brilliant intellect, as soon as the topic becomes religion, will ask the most juvenile questions, cringeworthy even by Sunday school standards.

    We live in a world where people can find the answer to almost any question at the click of a button, yet it seems people have never been more ignorant or ill-informed. And who is to blame? The Church, the clergy, whose apparent duty it is to spoon-feed each individual parishioner, and to raise the children of faithless and disinterested parents.

    I'm not sure how much of it is down to evangelicalism. It seems more the case that people are encouraged to think seriously about everything but religion. Couple that with a 21st century attention span and there's no wonder many attend church as helpless infants and mindless automatons, unable to absorbe or understand a thing.

    1. Your description of infantile with many people's approach to religion is quite apt for they are still children and never had parents to get them out of their infancy stage. When Christ said to suffer the little children and that unless one has faith like a child, he will not enter into the Lord's salvation, this is not the kind of faith he had in mind. The modern Orthodox "child" in the pews (whether adult or child) is not running after his parents to be like them, but is demanding that the parents be like him and giving in to his every whim.

      As for not thinking seriously about religion, I think you're right, too. Many people take their religious cues from what they see on TV. I wrote, not too long ago, how "reality" shows like the Bachelor and Bachelorette totally eschew any discussion of religion. Few people realize that after unfaithfulness and finances, differences in religion account for the primary reason for divorce in this country. How many of those couples have survived? As far as I know, none, but I don't follow either show. The only time religion is shown on TV is in the negative sense, unless it's about Judaism and Islam; they are given at least a more neutral look. But when Christian religion, in particular, is denigrated on TV or any other media, is it a wonder that that perception forms the basis from which inquirers, seekers or long time Christians form their faith?